As published in the Daily Mail:
GP rebellion over plan to share millions of patients’ data: Fears information could fall into hackers’ hands or be sold to drug firms
From spring, officials will begin building a giant database
But doctors fear that data will fall into the hands of hackers
NHS England, which is overseeing it, says privacy will be ensured
Doctors are concerned that data harvested from patients by the Government will fall into the hands of hackers or be sold to insurers and drugs firms for use in targeting patients
Doctors are rebelling against plans to harvest personal information from the medical files of millions of patients.
From spring, officials will begin building a giant database they say will help them identify poor performance such as long waiting times and late diagnosis of diseases such as cancer. They believe the information might even lead to new treatments.
But there is widespread concern among MPs, academics and doctors that the data will fall into the hands of hackers or be sold to insurers and drugs firms for use in targeting patients.
NHS England, which is overseeing the scheme, says privacy will be ensured because only dates of birth, postcodes and NHS numbers will be stored.
But each year more than a million medical files go missing from the Health Service – many of them lost on public transport or dumped in bins.
Unless patients tell their GP in person or over the phone that they do not want to be involved in the scheme, their data will be harvested automatically.
Critics say the NHS is making it deliberately difficult for patients to opt out – given how hard it is to make an appointment with a doctor or even speak to them on the phone.
At least two GPs are so opposed to the scheme they have removed the thousands of patients on their books from it unless they have specifically asked to be included.
One of the doctors, who is based in Oxford and is remaining anonymous for fear of reprisals, said he believed the scheme breached data protection laws.
Starting today, the NHS will begin dropping leaflets through the doors of all households explaining the scheme. The leaflets do not tell patients how to opt out and there is concern most of the public will never read them because they will be lost among junk mail.
David Davis, a Tory MP and former shadow home secretary, said: ‘It’s an enormous threat to privacy. To make patients go in and make an appointment with their GP is frankly disgraceful.
‘The database does have huge value for the NHS but it will go wrong. Some people’s information will be lost. If hackers can take on Microsoft, how long until they get to the Department of Health?’
Sarah Wollaston, a Tory MP and GP who sits on the Commons Health Select Committee, said: There’s no doubt that sharing records is good for patient care. But ultimately patients own their medical records and they should decide who they share them with.
Tory MP and former shadow home secretary David Davis said: ‘It’s an enormous threat to privacy.’
‘There are some people who might want to access it, not for the best reasons, for example insurance companies.’
There is concern that officials will use the data to make cuts to NHS services where they aren’t deemed to be needed – such as diabetes clinics in areas where the disease is less common.
Campaigners say drug firms could even use the data to raise premiums for at-risk groups.
Ross Anderson, who specialises in information security at Cambridge University, accused Health Service officials of deliberate deception.
He said: ‘The NHS takes the view that it’s our information, we’ll do with it what we want. There is no effort to maintain patients’ privacy.’
The professor said it would be very easy for researchers, drugs firms or insurers to identify patients just by knowing their postcode and date of birth alone.
Ultimately, he said it could lead to highly personal information about patients’ illnesses or conditions appearing on the internet or in research papers.
Phil Booth, of the campaign group Med Confidential, said the scheme was cynical and irresponsible.
But Dr Geraint Lewis, who is chief data officer at NHS England, said: ‘The NHS has been collecting information like this from hospitals for decades but until now we’ve been missing information about the quality of care provided outside hospital.
‘This is about upgrading our information systems to get a more complete picture of the quality of care being delivered across all parts of the NHS and social care.’